FFF Friday: “She offered me more advice on how I could ‘try harder’…”

Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.

Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.

While debating my HuffPo article on Twitter, a few people took me to task for being elitist – the implication being that only wealthy, privileged women feel the pressure to breastfeed. They mentioned that programs like WIC make it difficult for women to breastfeed, forcing formula on moms and not educating parents on the benefits of exclusive nursing. I know that historically, WIC has been the biggest purchaser of infant formula, and this reputation was accurate at one point in time. Yet, one of the groups most prominently represented in the FFF audience are WIC mothers – and they all speak of a militant brand of breastfeeding promotion which provides little real support and guidance and plenty of guilt, pressure, and admonishment.

This week’s story is from one of these moms, and I hope that her bravery in coming forward will encourage other parents to speak out. The more we call out the offenders who make breastfeeding promotion an abuse instead of the benefit it should be – the more we call them out BY NAME, whether it be a particular hospital, organization, or website – the better we can hold these people accountable. And my hope is by doing so, we can implore (and assist) them to  better serve families, and provide REAL support for the women and babies who need it.

Oh, and apologies for the lack of original posts as of late – we just moved and I’ve had spotty internet and zero time. Should be back in the next week….until then-

Happy Friday, fearless ones,



Sarah’s Story

When my daughter was first born, she had problems breathing, and the doctors whisked her away to the NICU. After a few hours of observation, they called me in my hospital room and asked if they could give her formula, or if I wanted to come down and breastfeed. Of course I wanted to breastfeed! Everyone told me how breastfed babies were healthier, stronger, and smarter. She was having problems already, so I wanted to give her every possible advantage that I could. When I first fed her, she latched right away and had a strong suck reflex. I was so happy because I’d heard that some babies aren’t very good at breastfeeding.

Later that day, my daughter was released from the NICU and joined me in my hospital room. She nursed on me for 15-20 minutes every hour and half. A lactation consultant came to check on us and asked how breastfeeding was going. “Great!” I said. She tried to show me how to express my colostrum, but nothing came out. She said that it could be because my daughter had just fed, so not to worry, and that my milk should “come in” in 3-5 days.

I was released the next day, and took my baby home. The hospital made sure that I scheduled a follow-up appointment with a pediatrician the next day just to check on her. When my husband and I took her in, the doctor said he saw some jaundice and had us go to the lab to get blood drawn to check her bilirubin level.

I got a call at 5:30 on a Friday from the doctor and knew something was wrong. He told me that her bilirubin level was high and that he recommended supplementing with formula until my milk came in so that she would pass the bilirubin more quickly. I’d heard that introducing a bottle too early could jeopardize breastfeeding, and I really didn’t want to give her formula (after all, “experts agree, the breast is best”). When I brought this up with the doctor, he said he understood but that he still wanted me to supplement, but to continue to breastfeed before giving it to her. He scheduled a re-check of her bilirubin for the next day at the lab.

This next part is difficult for me to write…

I was so worried about formula feeding my daughter that I went against the doctor’s advice and decided not to give her formula. At her second bilirubin check, I got another call from the doctor (on a Saturday!). He said that her levels had gone up and that he was really worried. I told him I hadn’t given her the formula yet, and he strongly advised that I start as soon as possible. I conceded and began, reluctantly, giving my daughter small amounts of formula that evening.

The next afternoon, the doctor called again to ask how she was doing. I told him that she hadn’t pooped yet, and he said that was o.k. I then told him that she hadn’t peed since the night before. He was alarmed, began asking questions, and advised me to take her to the ER. I was panicked. I didn’t know what was going on with my daughter, and my husband and I literally ran out of the house and sped the whole way to the hospital.

When we got there, I told them what was going on, and the nurse helped me feed her through a tiny tube with a syringe of formula attached to my nipple (this, to encourage breastfeeding). Afterward, they had me pump with an electric hospital pump, but nothing came out. I was told that it may take up to 7 days for my milk to come in, so not to lose hope.

When the doctor came in, she diagnosed my baby with dehydration. I felt awful! I thought it was my fault that she was dehydrated because my milk hadn’t come in yet (I hadn’t yet realized that the reason she was dehydrated was because I had waited to give her formula. I was so worried about the “evils” of formula feeding that I actually jeopardized my baby’s health). Later that evening, after she’d peed and pooped, they released her, and I was given the instructions to continue to tube feed her formula until my milk came in, and to manually pump my breasts six time a day.

5 days after giving birth, I still hadn’t felt a “let down” of milk, my breasts hadn’t gotten hard like I was told they would, and I still wasn’t able to express anything.  I began drinking “mother’s milk tea”, and immediately called my doctor’s office, where they referred me to Lactation. I made the first available appointment for later that week, hoping that I wouldn’t have to go because my milk would come in, and things would progress “normally”.

On day 10 when the appointment finally arrived, my milk still hadn’t “come in”. Or so I thought. With the lactation consultant, I began pumping, and produced 1 ml of milk from each breast. What I thought was just colostrum, was in fact my milk. Apparently, I just had a low supply. She advised me to start pumping after every nursing and to take an herb called fenugreek three times a day. She told me that it takes 2-3 weeks for milk to fully come in, so it was still possible to increase my supply. Phew, I thought. I can still breastfeed! She then gave me a list of places I could rent an electric hospital pump, so my husband and I wouldn’t have to do it manually anymore.

The next day I called and rented an electric pump. Day and night I breastfed, bottle fed formula, pumped, washed and dried my pumping equipment. By the time I was done it was time to change a diaper or feed again. I was barely sleeping, so exhausted at one point that I was hallucinating people talking in my home. I cried, and cried, and cried, feeling that I was failing my daughter. After a week of this, I called Lactation again and asked if there was anything else I could do because, after all of this, I was still only getting about 5 ml of milk total. She said that there were some medications I could take, but that they rarely helped. Even so, I asked my doctor about it at my next appointment. She said that the one they prescribe most often caused depression, so she didn’t recommend it (I have a history of depression and anxiety). She then looked at me sincerely and said, “You have my permission to stop breastfeeding.” I started crying.

I finally resigned to doing both formula and breast milk, collecting enough to give my daughter a bottle of breast-milk every three days. I still felt guilty, but was finally coming to terms with the fact that exclusively breastfeeding my daughter was not an option for me. That was until I went to my WIC appointment.

Every new mother who is breastfeeding, even partially, is required to attend a new mother breastfeeding class in order to receive their WIC checks. The class, made up of women and their newborn babies, touted breastfeeding as the end-all be-all of motherhood. At the end of the class, a breastfeeding “peer counselor” came in and, one by one, asked us how breastfeeding was going. When it was my turn, I was blatantly honest, and said “it’s going horribly.” I was pressed for more information, so I told my story (a shorter version of what I’ve told here), ending in “the lactation consultant told me that there wasn’t anything else I could do and my doctor gave me permission to stop breastfeeding.” At that, the peer counselor scoffed, and said “that’s not what we like to hear. There’s always more you can do.”

After the class, she had me fill out a form for a peer counselor, rent another hospital-grade pump, and offered me more advice on how I could “try harder.” Again, I felt that sweet sting of failure, the guilt that bubbles up inside you because you can’t produce enough milk for your baby, and struggled to fight back tears. I agreed to continue “trying” by pumping and nursing. I went back to nursing, bottle feeding, pumping, and cleaning. After another week with no improvement, my husband intervened, and told me that I had to stop before I went insane. I knew he was right, but I still cried. I just couldn’t let go of the image of breastfeeding my baby. If it was so much better for the baby, like everyone said, then why would God deprive me of the ability to produce enough milk? Thoughts like this wrapped around my brain like a noose, slowly strangling me.

When the peer counselor called to check in, and I told her that my milk supply still wasn’t increasing, she suggested I take prescription medication. I told her that my doctor had advised against it, and she said that she would check with her supervisor. I don’t know what qualifications her supervisor had, but I’m almost sure it didn’t include a doctorate of medicine. Then, and only then, did I finally build up the courage to tell her I didn’t want to try any more.

In the end, I realized that it wasn’t a choice for me to formula-feed my daughter, it was a necessity. Looking back, if I had just formula-fed her to begin with she wouldn’t have had jaundice, she wouldn’t have been dehydrated, and she wouldn’t have gone to the ER during her first week of life. What was best for my daughter was not to continually berate myself for not being able to breastfeed her, not to take time away from her by pumping and cleaning, but to be present with her, to do the best thing for her – to give her formula!

I still struggle with feelings of guilt, sadness at giving up what is deemed by society to be “natural” and “healthier” for my daughter. When I go in to get my WIC checks, I grimace at the posters on the walls of the cute babies with thought bubbles saying things like “I don’t want formula; I want your breast milk, Mommy.” I can only take solace in the fact that giving my daughter formula saved her life, and probably mine as well.

Share your story for an upcoming FFF Friday: email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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14 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “She offered me more advice on how I could ‘try harder’…”

  1. I am so sorry you had to go through all of that. This sounds so much like my first two weeks as a new parent. It was horrible. The only difference was that when I went back to the hospital to get his jaundice re-checked and they said he needed formula, I listened. I let the nurse give my baby a bottle, and then happily sleep for the first time since we had left the hospital. Also, in the end, I was able to nurse him exclusively, eventually… not without our own unique struggles. After that experience, I can’t imagine keeping up the vicious cycle of nursing, bottle feeding, pumping, washing, and repeat. You did what you thought was best at the time, and in hindsight, you know better now. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve held onto my own guilt from the early weeks, and this helped tremendously. <3

  2. It’s funny how both you and I have had that “lightbulb moment” when taking “advice” from a lactation consult. Mine was when she told me that she’d gone against her doctor’s wishes and checked out of the hospital 5 days out without milk and refused to feed formula. That was when I decided “bonkers is bonkers”.

  3. I love this… My difficult time trying to breastfeed my children was not quite this difficult, Sarah is a HERO in my book. It was difficult enough for ME to make me stop trying though and I made a quick decision to use formula for my family. With my second(last) baby born last year, I tried breastfeeding for a few days…It didn’t work for us, I switched and have lived happily ever after. I too have WiC… I couldn’t believe we got it honestly, but hey, if they say we qualify…the paper doesn’t lie! I am surprised that these women are lactaction consultants but attempt to advise you on things that float outside the realm of their expertise. I felt an onset of depression rising inside me as I started to fight what I felt might be normal supplementation but society considered poison when I wanted to tell the WiC person that I wasn’t going to keep breastfeeding, I was going to ask for formula. They gave me all of their, what I call lame, reasons why I should breastfeed. Well that’s great and all, but not only did I not want to anymore, my daughter didn’t want to anymore. And that was enough for me. And my husband and I were at our wits end after three days of no sleep trying to get the baby to feed enough to sleep longer… So I told the woman, ‘Unless you are a licensed psychiatrist and WiC offers Therapy Sessions as well as these nutrition classes, give me the formula checks or send me on my way, but I’m not breastfeeding my daughter because “You say so”.’ Great story, thank you for sharing!

  4. While WIC has been a great help to my family financially, I dread my appointments now because I don’t breastfeed. My daughter is a big eater (she wanted 3-4 ounces within her first week of life). The WIC counselor automatically took the stance that we were overfeeding her and pushed us to breastfeed without understanding the difficulties that we had or the fact that we decided to stop because it was quickly sending me into postpartum depression. Because we are on formula, we were scheduled for another appointment only one month after our last one to check her weight. Thank you WIC for making me feel like I’m hurting my child by giving her formula. Also, thank you for your poster telling me to breastfeed so I’ll get more food checks. That doesn’t feel punishing as a formula feeder at all. : /

  5. I feel like giving you a high five! I am another , supposedly rare, woman with IGT. We do exsist! Believe it!
    I found the part of your story with the WIC counselor very frustrating. I disliked basically being dx by each and every LC I sought out for info. They would ask all the same questions, give the same advice, tell me to keep trying…but my body just wouldn’t produce. Why don’t they (LC) believe the IGT dx of another LC? I wasn’t seeking a dx…just help to figure out how best to combo feed.
    I made very little. I stopped combo feeding at one month. All I can say is , “I love formula!” It saved my childrens lives. It did such a good job nurishing them…they are healthy, smart, active, and loved

  6. Wow. This was almost like reading my own story. The before birth support groups I had online always toted breastmilk as the be all end all. Formula was evil and your child would not be healthy or smart if you used it. The colostrum you produced until your milk came in (because IT WILL come in they said) is enough for your baby to survive.

    Apparently this wasn’t the case for me either. My son ended up in the hospital for high bilirubin levels and dehydration in his first week of life too. Nearly a year later and I still feel horrible. I could have killed my son because I was pretty much brainwashed. I was stuck on the stigma that formula was horrible. That could have cost him his life.

    After a couple months of pumping no more than 5ML a day I too had to give up for my sanity. I felt horrible and like I had failed. It really sucks when you’re supposed to receive support from these people and the only thing they can do is tell you how you’re wrong and that you’re not trying hard enough.

  7. This story makes me so so.. so so so so so so so angry. What right does the WIC consultant have to press MEDICAL solutions on the guest poster that her own doctor had vetoed?!?! Un Freaking Believable.

    I’m a lawyer, and if I could find a way to advocate for legal reforms that prevented this harassment of women by good intentions, or at least helped women get the services (Hello, WIC?!) without the harassment (along with birth services, legal options at least for not being forced into procedures for liability reasons), I would start this practice immediately and totally quit my day job. Name one area of medicine directed at men that takes away their choices in the matter and informs them what is best, and assumes they will comply because “a doctor or consultant said so.”


  8. What is best for some is not best for everyone. I am positive that your daughter doesn’t care one bit about what kind of milk goes in her tummy – but she does care that she has a sane and happy Mommy to feed her! Hang in there, the guilt and the sadness will fade as she grows. Mine did. Keep reading all the stories on the this blog and focus on your happy healthy baby! Happy and healthy because you did what was best for her – used formula! *Hugs* 🙂

  9. Yuck. “That is not what we like to hear.” How awful. Try being in it and not just hearing it. At least you had a sane doctor and lactation consultant.

  10. This sort of judgment is exactly why I refused to get WIC even though we qualified and it would have been quite helpful. I had heard a lot about the judgment and I so did not want to have to deal with that. My neighbor got WIC and was able to breastfeed told me that she was afraid to not nurse. Gee I wonder where she got that idea? Maybe all the propaganda posters in the WIC office?

  11. I just found this website, because I just found the book at my local library and I AM SO GLAD. I had a terrible breastfeeding experience because of my daughters tongue tie and my PCOS. I wish I would have had this website 2 years ago when I was going through hell and feeling judged from nearly everyone (except for my wonderful husband).

    THANK YOU so much for this space.

  12. I exclusively breastfeed and it bothers me how pushy the WIC office is about breastfeeding. I hated going in to pick up my checks and having so many pamphlets and talks about breastfeeding pushed on me.

  13. As I was reading this I was brought back to the first month when we brought our son home. I was recommended to supplement with formula the night we brought him home because he had not had a wet diaper in 12 hours, even though it seemed like he was eating fine. I did supplement, though it killed me to do so. The one thing I wish I would have been told at the beginning was that even though breastfeeding is best, the important part is that you have a happy and healthy baby and it is not your fault if you are unable to breastfeed. My son is now 5 months old and growing by leaps and bounds. He is an amazing little boy, and years from now it will not matter if he was breast fed or not, all that will matter is that he was loved!

  14. Ugh, this was my experience with WIC. I had a bilateral mastectomy. The fact that I can even produce drops is a miracle in itself. There is virtually no chance I could ever produce a full supply- but still they made me sit through those stupid “support groups” where they tout Breast is Best and tell outright LIES. Including:

    -Your baby only needs DROPS! (in what reality is half an ounce at a time “drops”?)
    -It doesn’t hurt! (enough people here can point out this isn’t true!)
    -Everyone can produce enough supply! (I was half tempted to lift up my shirt and ask how, exactly, could this chest produce a full supply for a hungry baby?)

    I left at least one of those groups in tears, and it is incredibly manipulative that they hold the checks hostage until you sit through that schlock.

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